Either of two species of insectivorous suboscine passerines (family Menuridae) named for the shape of their extremely long tail when spread in courtship display. Found in forests in southeastern Australia, lyrebirds are ground dwellers with chickenlike bodies. About 40 in. (1 m) in total length, the male superb lyrebird is the longest of the passerines. He displays in a small clearing, bringing his tail forward so that the beautiful white plumes form a canopy over his head and the lyrelike feathers stand out to the side. In this position, while prancing in rhythm, he sings far-carrying melodious notes interspersed with perfect mimicry of other creatures and even of mechanical sounds.
Learn more about lyrebird with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Lyrebirds are among Australia's best-known native birds, even though they are rarely seen in their natural habitat. As well as their extraordinary mimicking ability, lyrebirds are notable because of the striking beauty of the male bird's huge tail when it is fanned out in display; and also because of their courtship display.
Lyrebirds feed on insects, spiders, earthworms and, occasionally, seeds. They find food by scratching with their feet through the leaf-litter. When in danger, lyrebirds run, rather than fly, being awkward in flight, and have also been seen to take refuge in wombat burrows. Also, firefighters sheltering in mine shafts during bushfires have been joined by lyrebirds.
One researcher, Sydney Curtis, has recorded flute-like lyrebird calls in the vicinity of the New England National Park. Similarly, in 1969, a park ranger, Neville Fenton, recorded a lyrebird song, which resembled flute sounds, in the New England National Park, near Dorrigo in northern coastal New South Wales. After much detective work by Fenton, it was discovered that in the 1930s, a flute player living on a farm adjoining the park used to play tunes near his pet lyrebird. The lyrebird adopted the tunes into his repertoire, and retained them after release into the park. Neville Fenton forwarded a tape of his recording to Norman Robinson. Because a lyrebird is able to carry two tunes at the same time, Robinson filtered out one of the tunes and put it on the phonograph for the purposes of analysis. The song represents a modified version of two popular tunes in the 1930s: "The Keel Row" and "Mosquito's Dance". Musicologist David Rothenberg has endorsed this information.
A Lyrebird's tale
During the early 1930s, a male lyrebird, called "James", formed a close bond of friendship with a human being, Mrs. Wilkinson, after she had been offering food to him over a period of time. James would perform his courtship dance for her on one of his mounds which he had constructed in her backyard — and he would also put on his display for a wider audience, but only when Mrs. Wilkinson was one of those present. On one such occasion, James' performance lasted for forty-three minutes, and included steps to a courtship dance accompanied by his own tune — and also included imitating perfectly the calls of an Australian Magpie, and a young magpie being fed by a parent-bird, a Eastern Whipbird, a Bellbird, a complete laughing-song of a Kookaburra, two Kookaburras laughing in unison, a Yellow-tailed Black-cockatoo, a Gang-gang Cockatoo, an Eastern Rosella, a Pied Butcherbird, a Wattle-bird, a Grey Shrike-thrush, a Thornbill, a White-browed Scrubwren, a Striated Pardalote, a Starling, a Yellow Robin, a Golden Whistler, a flock of parrots whistling in flight, the Crimson Rosella, several other birds whose notes his audience were not able to identify, and the song of honey-eaters (tiny birds with tiny voices), that gather in numbers and "cheep" and twitter in a multitudinous sweet whispering. In order to mimic the honeyeaters' singing faithfully, James was obliged to subdue his powerful voice to the faintest pianissimo, but he contrived, nevertheless, to make each individual note of the soft chorus audibly distinct. Also included in James' performance was his perfect mimicry of the sounds made by a rock-crusher at work, a hydraulic ram, and the tooting of motor-horns.
The classification of lyrebirds has been much debated. They were briefly thought to be Galliformes like the broadly similar looking partridge, junglefowl, and pheasants that Europeans were familiar with, but since then have usually been classified in a family of their own, Menuridae, which contains a single genus, Menura.
It is generally accepted that the lyrebird family is most closely related to the scrub-birds (Atrichornithidae) and some authorities combine both in a single family, but evidence that they are also related to the bowerbirds remains controversial.
Lyrebirds are not endangered in the short to medium term. Albert's Lyrebird has a very restricted habitat but appears to be secure within it so long as the habitat remains intact, while the Superb Lyrebird, once seriously threatened by habitat destruction, is now classified as common. Even so, lyrebirds are vulnerable to cats and foxes, and it remains to be seen if habitat protection schemes will stand up to increased human population pressure.
Lyrebirds are ancient Australian animals: The Australian Museum has fossils of lyrebirds dating back to about 15 million years ago . The prehistoric Menura tyawanoides has been described from Early Miocene fossils found at the famous Riversleigh site.
The lyrebird is so called because the male bird has a spectacular tail (consisting of 16 highly modified feathers (two long slender lyrates at the centre of the plume, two broader medians on the outside edges and twelve filamentaries arrayed between them), which was originally thought to resemble a lyre. This happened when a Superb Lyrebird specimen (which had been taken from Australia to England during the early 1800's) was prepared for display at the British Museum by a taxidermist who had never seen a live lyrebird. The taxidermist mistakenly thought that the tail would resemble a lyre, and that the tail would be held in a similar way to that of a peacock during courtship display, and so he arranged the feathers in this way. Later, John Gould (who had also never seen a live lyrebird), painted the lyrebird from the British Museum specimen.
Although very beautiful, the male lyrebird's tail is not held as in John Gould's painting. Instead, the male lyrebird's tail is fanned over the lyrebird during courtship display, with the tail completely covering his head and back — as can be seen on an Australian 10 cent coin, where the Superb Lyrebird's tail (in courtship display) is portrayed accurately.